Questions and Answers

Just because a question is asked, must an answer be forthcoming?

In the US at least, we’re programmed from an early age to ask questions. Lots of questions. We’re told that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” (which is mostly, but not entirely, true). We are told we can only learn if we ask questions (also partially, but not completely, true). Parents do sometimes get into trouble when their offspring ask embarrassing questions of total strangers, or when questions are raised in inappropriate settings.

Question-asking and answer-giving are highly nuanced conversational transactions. appropriateness of the questions asked and answers given are tempered primarily by two factors: relationship and context. Relationship determines who has the right to ask certain information: your tax preparer has a lot more right to ask you questions about your sources and uses of income than, say, your auto mechanic (so long as the bill gets paid). Context is, broadly, the setting of the questions. Your doctor can ask about your rash in the exam room, but not if you run into each other in the frozen foods aisle of the supermarket.

If the question is asked outside of an appropriate relational and contextual combination (and yes, you need both), there are a number of possible outcomes. Embarrassment is usually one–but it is usually the respondent who is embarrassed by the question (which, I think, and Miss Manners would agree) is wrong. The respondent need not be embarrassed because someone else mis-reads a social situation, nor is the respondent required to give an answer to the question. They can offer a polite answer that has nothing to do with the question, but indicates the inappropriateness of the query. The problem here is that the questioner is unlikely to understand that s/he has over-stepped the relationship or context, or learn not to do it again. The Sheldon Cooper character of the Big Bang Theory does exactly that in Series 3 Episode 2.

Another outcome is that the respondent becomes flustered, and offers an answer that probably isn’t helpful, or feels pressured into answering “truthfully”–which gives information to someone with no right to it. I was recently asked a highly inappropriate question in an interview situation, and fell into this trap. I was asked whether I could seriously expect that one of my former employers–someone fairly well-known–could be bothered to write a recommendation on my behalf (the answer could have been much more politely acquired by actually approaching my referee and asking, than by putting me on the spot). One has to wonder about the motives behind doing so; my eventual conclusion was that the questioner was trying to tell me he thought I was lying on my curriculum vitae. It’s all easy enough to check, so why wasn’t that done before the interview was scheduled?

A third, preferable (to me, anyway) outcome, is to put the respondent, rather than the questioner, in at least a position to take equal control over the situation. I learned how powerful this is when I took a class in Action Learning Sets at University College London. When it’s your turn as “presenter”, nobody can interrupt you, and when the group asks questions, you can decide which ones to answer and which ones to set aside. As we wrote our questions on Post-It notes, we sometimes had fun saying what we thought of a question by crunching it up and tossing it in the bin. Doing that is a claiming of power: you have control over who gets access to portions of your mind, heart, and soul. Not everyone deserves it, and you–not they–make that decision.

I’m finding that Christians–even very devout, “true believers”–don’t understand the appropriateness of some questions. Especially when you add in a third element.

Much of Christian formation (a term I am not happy with) is predicated on learning the “right” answers to a narrow band of questions, and deciding anything other than those pre-programmed “right” answers means everything else is an absolute “wrong” answer. And because they “know the answers” they have an unchallengeable right to demand others parrot those answers back. And if the correct response isn’t forthcoming, it is the occasion for drawing lines between “Christian” and “not Christian”.

I said a bit about it here. A couple of days ago, also in an online context, the same sort of nonsense came at me. Only louder, and more personally directed. The opening gambit was “can women be pastors in church?” I said it depended on denomination (factually true). A very aggressive man said absolutely not, it had nothing to do with denomination, the Bible says that women can’t be pastors, and that was it. That is the right answer from which one departs only on risking the pains of hell.

Okay, well, he didn’t say that to me immediately. But he did begin to ask me some very pointed questions about whether I believed in hell, whether I believed in the inerrancy of scripture (neither of which I do in an un-nuanced way). Then he went and looked at my profile (which is fine), and said I must be going to hell because I studied with Jesuits who he thinks might be Catholics, who do not believe in the inerrancy of scripture, and–worse–actually accept evolution.

I didn’t give him answers. I said I would, if he would please tell me why he believed he had the authority to demand answers out of me. The man in question was the connection (I am not sure if there is a real-life connection) of one of my on-line connections (who I may have a real-life connection, as she seemed to have gone to my high school, there are a few mutual connections I recognize, but I don’t remember her with any precision). This man has no right to demand testimony about my “faith” (or lack thereof), or to make any judgment about it–because our relationship is neither close enough nor in the right context for him to do so.

So, I refused. And he (and others) decided that I had acted inappropriately because I wouldn’t answer until he explained why his questions were appropriate.

Although this is more common in the more conservative and evangelical Christians, it’s not limited to them. To claim one is “Christian” seems to mean that the claimant has decided it is his or her right to decide (on evidence, or otherwise) who else is entitled to self-identify as “Christian”.

And once again, that has to be called for the nonsense it is.

It seems to me, the most “Christian” thing to do–if we need to ask questions at all–is to ask them genuinely. Without predetermined “right” answers, in a spirit of dialogue and mutual learning; taking into account whether we, as questioners, are in the right relationship and context with our respondents to do so. And as respondents, to ask our own questions in return when the relationship and context seem inappropriate.

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